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Downtown Reverend Speaks Up on Feeding the Homeless in Public Parks

September 5, 2007 Downtown, Guest, Homeless, Religion 23 Comments

A guest editorial by Rev. Karen Fields:

Over the past year or so, I have been a part of the St. Louis Downtown Residents Association’s meetings that have focused on the safety issues that face those who have chosen to make downtown their home. Recently, I attended a similar meeting convened by Alderman Kacie Starr Triplett. As a clergyperson whose church has opened the doors to the homeless, I went to these meetings already on the defensive. I had an idea of how the residents might feel about the population that walks through our doors everyday looking for a meal, a restroom, or a phone. I knew that they didn’t know me, my motivation, our program, or even very much about the people we serve. I didn’t say much at these meetings. I wanted to assess the prevailing sentiment.

I have to admit that I did hear some of what I went expecting to hear. I heard the voices that said that the presence of the homeless in the parks and on the streets was hurting their property values. I heard the voices that said that there needed to be more security measures in place to protect residents and their investments. But I have to also admit that these voices were dwarfed by the voices of those who were looking for safety and security for all downtown residents, not just the ones sleeping in a loft. There was evidence of compassion for those with whom they share their neighborhood. It is hard, however, to hold compassion and the desire for safety and security in tension; especially when you have compassion for those whom you feel threaten your safety and security. It was obvious that it is in that tension that most of the St. Louis downtown residents live.

None of the homeless service providers created homelessness nor did they bring homelessness to downtown St. Louis. This population was downtown long before the first developer decided to invest in gentrification. They made their homes in abandoned warehouses, in tunnels under the city, in the parks, and along the riverbank, long before the warehouses were reclaimed for profit or there were pets to walk in the parks. The service providers responded to a human need that existed. They are still responding to human need.

Working with this population, I have learned a great deal about the human condition. There is no one definition of the characteristics of a homeless person. Stereotypes are as wrong for them as they are for any other minority. I have learned that they are a microcosm of the larger society from which we all come. Just like in any neighborhood across the metro area, some of the members of the homeless population are extremely intelligent. Some are intellectually challenged. Some are creative and artsy. Some are linear and analytical. Some need to be on medications to maintain a balanced temperament. Some are diabetic. Some have high blood pressure. Some have families that love them. Some are estranged from their past. Some have criminal tendencies. Some try to be model citizens. Not one wants to be a failure. Not one dreamed of someday living on the streets. Not one of them wants to be invisible. All of them want to love and be loved. Not all of them know how.

As part of the neighborhood, Centenary Church decided two years ago that we have a responsibility to step into the tension and become part of the solution. No matter how well intended a suburban group might be, it is not a safe and healthy practice to feed people in our parks. There is no control over how the food is prepared, served, or disposed of. The homeless population risks illness and the parks suffer from trash and rodents. Centenary has a large dining hall with an inspected kitchen and lots of trash cans.

No matter how much downtown residents and business owners dislike the problem of public urination, the fact remains that there are few public restrooms available for a homeless person to take care of this most basic human need. Centenary is in the process of completing the construction of new public restrooms that will be available for anyone’s use. It is the hope that in the near future, we might be able to acquire the funds necessary to also offer showers.

No matter how hospitable the library is to the homeless population, most are not using it for the purpose for which a library is intended. Centenary will be open from breakfast to dinner most days, so that the homeless have a place of respite from the elements – to get in out of the rain or snow or to escape the heat, a place to get a cold drink of water or a hot cup of coffee, a place to rest feet or wait for an appointment.

I have heard rumor that some have said that we are nothing more than a City-sponsored Methodist jail. I have been asked how I feel about the City requiring people to join Centenary in serving evening meals or they will be ticketed. Neither one of these accusations could be further from the truth. Centenary Church has opened its doors to help ease the tension and help find ways that diversity can co-exist. Nobody is required to join us “or else.” Nobody is being forced to spend their day in our building.

The re-development of downtown St. Louis is exciting. Dry bones are beginning to come to life. Downtown living offers something that can be found no place else. Centenary Church has been a downtown church since 1839. It has chosen twice in its history to remain a downtown church; even as other churches have packed up and moved west. It did not go to the suburbs and decide to move back downtown. It has always been here. Centenary knows what a great place downtown St. Louis can be and is committed to being a place of hospitality and grace to all of the residents of the neighborhood.

At the last meeting I attended, the question was asked about what people could do “right now” to address the issues that homelessness causes for the community. I said it then, and I will say it again. Come join us at Centenary. Help us build bathrooms. Help us provide a safe place to eat. Come help us serve a meal. Come have a conversation with one of your neighbors. You might find that they are more human than you thought.

Reverend Fields is an Associate Pastor with Centenary United Methodist Church located at 1610 Olive and is the Program Director of Centenary CARES. For more information go to centenarystl.org. To volunteer time and/or money please contact Rev. Fields at 314.421.3136 ext. 106 or k.fields at centenarystl dot org.


Currently there are "23 comments" on this Article:

  1. Southside Tim says:

    Reverend Fields: I was all prepared to jump on your comments anticipating a shameless defense of the homeless’ right to do what it is where ever they please. Oops! They do that anyway. Nevertheless I half heartedly applaud your efforts.

    These poor people are making a mess of that area. I worked at 14th and Washington for 10+ years and thought I was immune to them. Recently having gone to the library and walked the area I was shocked at how the homeless have invaded the neighborhood.

    Your efforts it would seem at least offer a way to get the people off the streets and presumably out of sight. A partial solution at best. Call me old fashioned but from my observation a lot of these folks should be in an old fashion institution where they can be looked after and controlled.

    A major ancillary problem that comes with facilities you propose and Larry Rice provides is to concentrate the problem. These people were not born and raised here. They come from neighborhoods both urban and suburban. Why should the property owners and office workers downtown be subjected to problems that have arisen elsewhere?

  2. insider says:

    i think a perfect location for a homeless shelter would be the old schnucks store at hanley and clayton

  3. awb says:

    Reverend Fields,

    I am in full agreement with your plans. Like you said, the homeless population was there before the loft dwellers so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who invested there. I do not see your services as warehousing. I doubt you will require people who enter Centenary to stay for a set period of time.

    Let’s face it. If homeless people have a place to shower and use a bathroom, it’s good for them and therefore good for all of us.

    I just don’t see any downside to what you are doing. Centenary didn’t create the problem but Centenary is doing the right thing in dealing with it humanely. As a bonus, we have less trash in our parks and less public urination.

    Will you offer those bathroom facilities to Rams fans who also tend to urinate in public?

  4. butler miller says:

    What is this very well meaning organization doing to make the people no longer homeless? Maybe it is outside of their ministry/resources, but providing meals/showers, while alleviating the human suffering, doesn’t do much to make the people self sufficient.

    Building showers and such gets close to the border of endorsing homelessness as a lifestyle choice. It is, to an extent, but when it becomes harassing, it becomes something else.

    Not to pick on Centenary–many organizations fit the description of giving someone a fish, rather than teaching them to fish.

    [SLP — I don’t think it is the place of churches or municipal government to teach people, that comes from parents and schools.  The issue here is that we have fellow humans that for whatever reason have found themselves without another living option.  If Centenary can keep them fed, let them shower and give them some dignity I have better hope that they will be able to do for themselves in the future.  I’d much rather they urinate at their restrooms than in an alley or park.  Until they get off the street, I’d rather they be showered.]

  5. oldguard says:

    Hey Butler-

    I’m not letting them shower in my place. Are you? Have you ever had a job interview or otherwise tried to make a good impression? A same day shower, a haircut, and some clean clothes is a good place to start. If these people leave Centenary Church looking presentable, how is that a problem, and it might actually help. And I’m not doing it. And I doubt anyone on this website is, save for Centenary Church. I think we should be thanking them, and figuring out ways to do more.

  6. newsteve says:

    While your words moved me, reverend, they did not change my mind. Certainly charity and compassion are admirable traits. There is an old proverb that echos your sentiment “Charity looks at the need and not at the cause”. However, providing meals, shelter, showers, bathrooms, phones and internet access, unfortunately, I fear, allows the beneficiary of such charity to see it as more advantageous to prolong the condition that led to the need in the first place. While I understand that your church cannot solve the cause, but can only treat the consequences, there has to be some balance. I think I read somewhere that the Salvation Army in some other city would provide shelter to anyone who needed it for as long as they needed it. They then changed thier policy. The homeless person could stay for a week free. If he or she chose to stay more than a week, they had to pay $5 a night, perhaps 20% or less than what it cost the shelter to provide the accomodations. I don’t know how that panned out, but it seems to me that giving somebody a break, but making them responsible in part, may get the homeless person on a path to being self sufficient. Making life more and more pleasant for the homeless, without requiring some evidence from them that they are trying to get out of their situation,just creates what we have now in downtown. Please don’t get me wrong. I admire what you are doing and the compassion you have for the less fortunate. However, a balance needs to be struck. The concerns of those buying and living in downtown, as well as the businesses must be addressed as well.

  7. oldguard says:

    In the old days, the cops at the jail would give a bum bus fare to move on to the next town. We could try that. Sorry, it just sounds funny to read the comments of so many comfortable people downing the efforts of a church to assist the lowest among us. Do I like tiptoeing around homeless people? No. Do I begrudge them a hot shower and a safe place to sleep? No.

  8. b says:

    The vast majority of the homeless who sleep in the parks choose to do so. Those who literally have fallen on the hardest of times find plenty of temporary help with agencies and churches to get themselves back on their feet.

    The folks who choose to sleep in the park are those that generally do not like the rules of society. They don’t like people telling them what to do and just choose to live. Hang out in the park and folks will come by with a meal and some beverages for them from time to time. Weather is nice so they’ll sleep outdoors. Weather gets bad and they’ll search for an abandoned building or a corner in an alley.

    Best thing those residents and biz owners can do is make life as difficult for them as possible. First thing I would do is organize some folks, collect some money and install a sprinkler system. Run it all night long and within a week or two the majority will soon scatter.

  9. South Side Red says:

    Homeless people aren’t going anywhere. So they have to go somewhere. And they have to go pee somewhere, too.

    I think what Centenary is doing is the right thing. As the Reverend said, parks and libraries are not meant to be flophouses for the mentally ill. At the very least, having centers like Centenary around will make it easier for everyone to enjoy those public amenities without the volatile, odoriferous, sometimes obnoxious presence of people who really should be in an institution.

    As you can tell, I’m not a bleeding heart on the issue of the homeless, especially when it comes to the addicted, drunk, violent, or deranged. Morally, I don’t think they have a right to behave however they want and expect the rest of us to tolerate it. But they’re here. What do we do with them?

    Yes, I know not all homeless people are crazy or dangerous or addicted to drugs. But a disproportionate number are, and those are the ones that cause the problem. Until we can bus them out to Frontenac, services like Centenary’s are the best solution.

  10. Chris Cleeland says:

    I do not know what I would do or how I would feel if my neighborhood suddenly became the “hangout” for the regions’ homeless population, but it does seem ridiculous to move into an area that already has homeless and then complain about it. That’s like moving to Phoenix and complaining about the heat, or moving to Alaska and complaining about the cold, or moving to Washington DC and complaining about politics.

    I also find the sentiment that doing things such as Centenary is attempting will make life easy for homeless people. Easy?! Be real. If a person considers that life so easy, then perhaps that person should try that life for a few weeks. Take a leave of absence from your job and give it a shot. Walk a few miles in the homeless’ shoes.

    Rather than being self-righteous, ask yourself what YOU are doing to help homeless people not be homeless. If you truly believe that they should be re-institutionalized, then what are YOU doing to support that? If you truly believe that all homeless people can be self-sufficient, then what are YOU doing to help them get that high-paying job?

    As somebody already pointed out, it’s kind of difficult for someone to get a job when they show up looking disheveled, dirty, “fragrant”. Moreover, it’s difficult to concentrate when a person is hungry.

    We, as the more fortunate, take many things for granted: grabbing a newspaper, sending mail, email, or using the phone, taking a shower, and having the only meal concern being which restaurant or which grocery will be used.

    There are no easy answers–certainly none I can see. But demonizing Centenary is simply arrogant and thoughtless.

  11. Mark Horvath says:

    In 1995 I was listed as a Who’s Who of American Executives for my work in the television industry however; I spent most of that year living in a park in Hollywood homeless and helpless. This past August 24th I celebrated 13 years clean and sober. It was not an easy road but I can honestly tell you that I would have never made it if a church didn’t extend to me a helping hand. For the last 11 years I have actively worked with the homeless in Los Angeles, Columbus, Southern Sudan and I am starting to get involved here.

    I have met with Rev. Karen Fields and toured their facility during a lunch time feeding and I was extremely impressed. Probably one of the better programs I have seen.

    The homeless population has problem people yet there are problem people in every demographic. Drugs, alcohol, depression, unemployment, poverty, low self-esteem and crime do not discriminate. These issues are everywhere and affect everyone. We cannot pick and choose who to help – we simply need to be there when the person is ready to change!

    There is no easy solution to this problem but people do change when they are given hope.

    I am proof

    Here is a link to my story in Windows Media format. I usually do not share this with people however; I thought it may help give a different perspective on the topic.


  12. the dude says:

    I think few people would argue about the merits of homeless shelters but why is it important that homeless shelters be located in the City’s central business district?

    [SLP — The homeless tend to congregate in places others have abandoned.  In some cities that is the CBD but in other cases it might be other neighborhoods.  Just because new folks come in does not mean they automatically leave.]

  13. oldguard says:

    While STL does have a homeless problem, people here need to recognize that we are focused on one teensy, weensy little park in our city. Our homeless problem is nothing compared to places like LA, Seattle, Miami, and San Francisco. In those areas there are literally shanty towns where homeless people lean cardboard up against buildings to create makeshift shelters.

    When walking through downtowns in these cities, the homeless are everywhere, laying in their own waste, sleeping in doorways of high rent districts. Parks are taken over by them. Imagine thousands of homeless people filling the greenspace right across from our city hall. That’s what it’s like in SF. Our homeless problem is nothing compared to these places. And these places are the “cool” places with lots of urbanism. Whoopee!

    We should do our best to help people who are hurting, keep it low key, and just be good Midwesterners. We help each other. Let’s focus on being what we do best: we’re good neighbors. Centenary is being a good neighbor.

  14. butler miller says:

    I see I touched a small nerve, and what I was trying to say is that I would like to see Centenary, or someone, do more. Am I doing it? No. Perhaps all citizens concerned about the national debt should either empty their savings accounts or shut their pie hole about it.

    I believe it can be function of government, municipal or otherwise, to provide job training for these people. It would be great if it were part of Centenary’s ministry, but it is not at this time. Most homeless people I see are well over 21 so the formal public education is over for them. Waiting around for a homeless person to come around on his/her own could take quite some time, and providing services to the person beyond a meal and a shower could be money well spent.

    I, like most people, would like to see an end to homelessness. Is providing meals and showers going to help that along? I think a little, for reasons stated, but not nearly enough. The human suffering will decrease due to Centenary’s charity, but I am looking for more, preferably out of charitable endeavors, but government could do the job also.

    As for re-institutionalizing someone, that would most likely need an amendment to the United States Constitution as it has been found by the courts that putting someone in an institution against their will is likely a violation of their civil rights. There are of course exceptions.

    People were complaining about homeless people before the gentrification came along. Are those people allowed to complain, but not newcomers? That sounds a lot like blaming victim. (What did you expect when you . . .?)

  15. insider says:

    actually steve, the homeless congregate downtown because that is where all the services are located…..the county is not doing their fair share to help with this issue

    [SLP — I’ll agree the county is not doing their part but I do not believe that services just sprouted up before a need existed and then all of a sudden we had homeless due to services.]

  16. awb says:


    St. Patrick’s Center offers some of the programs I think you’re describing. But St. Pat’s doesn’t offer everything. Do we criticize St. Patrick’s Center for not offering showers or a place to sleep on a cold night? Of course not. Centenary, like St. Pat’s, is offering what they can.

    It will take more than what these two institutions are doing to end homelessness in St. Louis, but a lot of people will get off the streets because of the services they get from either place. But as someone already pointed out, no one gets off the streets unless he/she wants to get off the streets.

  17. Jim Zavist says:

    This is a complex and challenging issue. Rev. Fields does an excellent job explaining her position. Many churches include compassion as a core part of their ministries. Her church is a part of the downtown community. Mental illness and substance abuse are not limited to only the poor and the homeless, they’re issues that affect all strata of society.

    The challenges arise when we live in close quarters. On a micro level, much like smoking, helmet laws and anonymous sex in airport restrooms, we all have our “rights”. The problems arise, on a macro level, when your rights are at odds with my rights, to enjoy my life and hard-earned property, and not to be too offended or impacted by the exercise of your rights.

    I have mixed feelings about what Rev. Fields is trying to do. On the one hand, these are people in need, and as a society, we have chosen to offer fewer governmentally-funded services. On the other hand, unlike many other communities in the metro area, St. Louis is providing services beyond a one-way bus ticket. We walk a very fine line between meeting a local need and creating a magnet for a much wider area. There would be much less discussion about (and a need for) these services IF several of the churches in Clayton and Fenton and Fergusson were each doing the same thing AND these communities were tolerating the homeless in their parks and libraries in the same way St. Louis does (and many other larger, older cities do).

    Bottom line, I respect Rev. Fields’ position much more than that of many suburban pastors who only seem to want to do drive-by feedings in downtown parks. You can’t export compassion any more than you can export the “problem”. If each community cared for their own, none of us would feel as burdened as many downtown residents and workers rightfully feel now.

  18. LisaS says:

    I really can’t quite believe the tone of the comments on this post. Rev. Fields & the congregation of Centenary should be commended for their work, not blamed for the economic and social conditions that create these issues and concentrate the need for services in one small area. oldguard mentions the bus ticket solution–but in this region, that ticket (or police car) sent the homeless to the City. Until just a very few years ago, conventional wisdom held that those old buildings on Washington Ave had outlived their useful lives–their floor plates too cluttered with columns, hazardous materials, etc. What better place for warehousing those who the rest of us would rather forget?

    The problem is, of course, that now middle class St. Louisans want to be there, so the poor and the homeless need to find another place to go so as not to to remind us that not everyone is as lucky as we are.

  19. I work next door to Centenary and they are a great bunch of folks working with a very challenging problem. They told me the Mayor wants them to setup up the effort on the bathrooms as it is seen as more of a problem than the feeding.

    I have proposed to both Alderwoman Young and Alderwoman Starr-Triplett AND the Gateway Mall planning group that they need to invest in public pay toilets for the Mall and park areas downtown similar to the deal reached in New York: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/22/nyregion/22furniture.html?ex=1285041600&en=ee35656f10b5c1c6&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss

    In my version, Centenary and other homeless drop-in shelters can give out unlimited tokens to the homeless to take care of business. (The homeless in turn can also sell them to drunk guys during the St. Pat’s Day parade.)

    For the interim, I think the homeless should be advised to use the facilities at City Hall. I think that will bring some swift attention to the matter.

  20. There’s a huge old Schnucks building with large lot at 10th and Cass that would make a great super-center for homeless emergency housing and social services. It’s closer to the originating neighborhoods of most city folks now experiencing homelessness, virtually next door to Sunshine Mission ministries and would pull them from the now-developing central corridor. Centenary is just doing their duty according to the Beatitudes, as Christ Church Cathedral/Episcopal did for many years until volunteer fatigue and diminishing funding set in to end the program (except for Sat Morning Breakfast and Chapel). Some street characters need boundaries drawn and enforced for them, to maintain a civil society. Loitering, agressive approaches, criminal trespass, littering, lewd behavior and loud vulgarities are already on the legal books as actionable, just do it on a regular basis until the message sinks in. It would help if we had twice as many cops who are paid better. Hey, Steve, that building on the north riverfront you love so much, the old freight building, would make a great new super-center for the homeless…Ha! Peace.

  21. independent says:

    Should the residents of ONSL have say in housing a huge homeless facility on their doorstep?

    [SLP — Well, to a degree but this is why we are in this problem now — everybody wants to live in isolation away from reality.  Besides, that old National/Schnuck’s is not in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood.  And keep in mind, Paul McKee owns that and much of the surrounding land.  The only activity in that immediate area is from the bus station which will be moving next year leaving another vacant building.]

  22. independent says:

    Most people agree that creating large concentrations of the homeless is less desireable than a more spread around approach. The city does it’s share. What are other corners of the region doing? Yesterday a lady from St. Louis County on the radio acknowledged how everyone in the region benefits from the STL police department, and she wished there was a way she could help the city foot the bill for the police. It’s nice to hear regionalism expressed, but I wonder if she’d be willing to have a homeless center in her burg?

    [SLP — Well, with over 90 municipalities in St. Louis County alone I don’t think we can expect every municipality in the region to set up services for the homeless.  Maybe if we utilized abandoned QuikTrip & McDonald’s locations throughout the region?]

  23. donna says:

    Bless you and your church for providing help for the helpless and hope for the hopeless. You are answering the question of “what would Jesus do?” and practicing what you preach. And, by the way, from reading the Bible, Jesus seemed to be homeless, too, during much of his adult life, albeit for a higher purpose. Not to mention, he was born in a manger, when his family found no room in the inn. Think about that.


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